Betty’s Shoebox – or, How I Came to Nomenclature
When I came to work at Maine’s State Museum, as head of that institution’s Research and Collections Division, I had the privilege of working with an experienced Registrar, Ms. Elizabeth (Betty) West, who had learned the ropes of registrarial art, craft and science at Canadian museums and who taught me most of what I know about museum registration. In the course of her long career, Betty had come to recognize the importance of consistency in naming collection objects. The search of a card file catalog for a “sofa” might not find a similar or identical piece of furniture listed as a “settee,” or a “davenport.” With this simple but significant understanding in mind, she had assembled a shoebox full of 3×5 file cards, each bearing an object name that she regarded as an acceptable or preferred term, and other alternative but less acceptable terms for the same or similar artifacts. I had no clue as to how many other shoeboxes, file drawers or ring binders of preferred terms might have existed in other museums as a result of efforts by other registrars and/or curators, but I was certainly impressed by the functional value of Betty’s shoebox, and did not hesitate to sing its praises to colleagues at state, regional and national professional meetings. Over time, however, I came to realize that he shoebox, despite its obvious usefulness, was a tool whose counterpart was not to be found at a great many other institutions. At some point in the early 1970s I mentioned Betty’s shoebox at a meeting of an ad hoc group known as the Museum Data Bank Coordinating Committee, and my comments seemed to strike a responsive chord with at least a few of the senior professionals among that group’s leaders – among them Holman J. (Jerry) Swinney, the founding Director of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, and William T. (Bill) Alderson, then the Director of AASLH. It wasn’t long after that that Jerry and Bill invited me to come to Rochester for a meeting with a young computer guru by the name of Robert G. (Bob) Chenhall and other museum folks who shared interests and ideas about standardizing the terminology and developing a classification structure for cultural collection objects. The product of that shared interest and effort was published, several years later, as the first (red-bound) edition of Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging, and I’ve been connected with the Nomenclature project ever since. It might never have happened without Betty’s shoebox.